Good Networking Skills Are Not Enough (And Other Decolonial Career Lessons from Gabrielle Union)

Healing stories

A few weeks ago while in South Africa on holiday, every time I passed by a bookstore I stopped to check if they had a copy of  “We’re Going to Need More Wine” by Gabrielle Union. But from Johannesburg to Cape Town, the book was sold out. And so, as soon as I was back in Canada, I wasted no time trying to find a copy of it in my local library.

The book did not disappoint. Union describes the relentless advocacy needed when you are trying to support children of colour through the school system, gives advice to get over heartbreak, explores why Hollywood is so white, is honest about the power differentials that arise when you have a different income from your partner,  describes the pain of miscarriage, talks about importance of investing in people and curating gatherings that matter,  shares why you need to find your voice, value yourself,  and be brave, and urges her readers to recognize that comparison and tearing people down does nothing for you in addition to many other topics.  Overall, Union covers a lot of ground in this book, and reading it felt like spending a weekend or several hours with a wise, honest friend who is not going to hold back in her advice. I loved it.

What  stuck with me the most from this book however, is Union’s reflections on career. Over the past two years, I’ve spoken to hundreds of students about building a career of meaningful work, and for me, this book was a reminder that when it comes to finding work as a person of colour, your experiences are not determined solely by what your resume looks like or how good your networking skills are. How employers make space for you and respond to you plays a role in your employment experiences too. And so, given that the average career book does not offer advice on how to navigate the job market as a racialized person, here are five take-aways from the book to help you both navigate the world of work as a racialized person or a co-conspirator trying to support the career journeys of others.

  1. Excellence is not an option. If you are a person of colour you cannot be mediocre. Union writes:

“My parents gave me the pep talk when I started school, the same speech all black parents give their kids: You’re gonna have to do twice as much work and you’re not going to get any credit for your accomplishments and for overcoming adversity. Most black people grow accustomed to the fact that we have to excel just to be seen as existing, and this is a lesson passed down from generation to generation.” (p.7)

To co-conspiratorsUnion also speaks about how the imperative of excellence places tremendous pressure on people of colour because it is difficult to relax when you know you have to be extraordinary. So if you want to support the career journeys of others, one way to do so is to support efforts to make mental health supports more accessible and to support racialized folks efforts to support themselves in real tangible ways. Giving to programs like Rachel Cargle’s Therapy Fund for Black Women and Girls is one amazing way to do this.

2) No matter how excellent you are, you cannot model minority your way into being seen as a human being.  Union writes:

“There’s this idea that you will be safe if you just get famous enough, successful enough, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, move into the right neighbourhood, do all these things to fully assimilate into the America people have been sold on. We all bought in, and we keep thinking if we just get over this mountain of assimilation, on the other side is a pot of gold. Or maybe a unicorn, perhaps a leprechaun. Any of those is as plausible as the acceptance of the wholeness of me. But there’s just another mountain on the other side. And someone ready to tell you, “Don’t be breathing hard. You need to make this look easy.

[..]I am told no one wants to hear about it. I even hear it from other people of color in Hollywood. Some have climbed the mountain and have been able to assimilate so thoroughly, they think they are in a parallel universe. “You’re sabotaging your own success by limiting yourself to being a black woman,” they say. They tell us that if we just stripped away these layers of identity, we would be perceived not for our color or gender, but for our inner core. Our “humanness.” (p.223)

3) Your career path is not a result of your efforts alone. Be gentle with yourself, and know that capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, and a lot of other systems are influencing your career trajectory.  A lot of career discourse points to networking as a magical strategy that will help you get work and meet people. Your typical career book places responsibility for success solely on you as an individual and not does not examine or critique the systems that impact you. You see this in articles and books that suggest you go on informational interviews, go to events to meet new people, make cold calls, email people you know tangentially, imagine what your vision for your life and work is and try to design your life accordingly. Your job in other words, is to keep moving, to keep applying for jobs, and to keep expanding your network. And while there is an element of truth in this – who you know does matter when it comes to finding work, we need to talk more about how individual striving will only go so far when the whole system is not designed for your success. Finding meaningful work requires other people to promote you and vouch for your work and open up spaces and gatherings to help you bring your work to new audiences and new people.  In her book Union expands on this point by describing the structure of Hollywood, where roles tend to go to the same kinds of people:

“And the rooms pretty much stay that way, no matter how high you rise, because for the most part Hollywood doesn’t subscribe to color-blind casting. What Lin-Manuel Miranda did with Hamilton is literally unheard of. We black actors meet in the room into which we are invited, but we are often barred from, to steal from Lin, the room where it happens. The spaces where deals get made and ideas get traded. Half the time you get picked to do something in Hollywood, it’s because someone cosigned for you. “Oh yeah, she’s talented, but most importantly, she’s cool,” someone with more pull than you will say. “I hung out with her this one time.”  (p.237)

[…] Here’s the thing about the #OscarSoWhite discussion. Hollywood films are so white because their art happens in a vacuum. It is made by white filmmakers, with white actors, for imagined white audiences. No one even thinks of remedying the issue through communal partying. Inviting one black actor to the party isn’t enough – sorry folks. We all know you can create even better art by truly being inclusive, but you’re never going to get inclusive in your work if you can’t figure out how to get inclusive in your social life. If you’re an actor of colour and and you’ve never had the chance to hang out with somebody and show them you’re talented and fun and deeper than what you can submit on a resume, you never have the opportunities to be included.” (p.239)

Union is talking about Hollywood, but the same can be said for other sectors

To co-conspirators: If you are an employer or someone generally committed seeking to create better workplaces, Union shares that for herself and a lot of other actors, Prince acted as a champion by creating carefully curated gatherings that invited many different kinds of people and helped form new friendships. Ask yourself: How can I support those with less social capital to access spaces they may not be able to access otherwise?  How can I create not just random networking events, but intentionally curated spaces? How can I support people (through money, time and invitations)  who are differently resourced to access new spaces? 

4)  When examples of excellence who look like you are not readily available, seek them out elsewhere. When describing her experiences parenting her stepsons, Union describes attending parent meetings fortified by spreadsheets, statistics and articles to help her relentlessly advocate for her stepsons. She writes, 

“I explained the danger authority figures put black kids when labeling them bullies. And I noted that they felt comfortable using that term because there was near-zero diversity in their faculty. What are you saying about black excellence or Latino excellence,” I asked, “when the examples they see here are the crossing guard and the janitors?” What message do you think that sends?” (209)

This story is a reminder that regardless of the life stage you are in, if you can’t easily see examples of excellence who look like you, you need to support yourself by seeking out those examples on your own. If you are at work and you cannot see anyone who looks like you in positions that are more senior than you, you need to nourish your heart and mind by actively looking for those role models elsewhere. And if you can’t find people in your organization or field, turn to Twitter, podcasts and other stories to widen your horizons. However, you do it, you need to find examples of excellence to remind you that your identity powers you to do incredible things. Union writes:

My humanness doesn’t insulate me from racism or sexism. In fact, I think I can deal effectively with the world precisely because I am a black woman who is so comfortable in my black-womanness. I know what I can accomplish. And anything I can accomplish, I did so not in spite of being a black woman, but because I am a black woman.” (p.223)

To co-conspirators: If you are a CEO, a manager, a director or a person in another leadership role who wants to support the career journey of racialized people in your organization or workplace, look at your staff. If you can see that there is a certain job family or level where people of colour are no longer represented, how are you supporting people of colour below that point to find career mentors?  How can you actively give them time and space, curated gatherings, facilitated introductions to help them meet people who better understand their experience? No matter how good a leader you are or how “woke” you are, there are limits to your understanding and it is important to help people find mentors who understand the experiences you cannot.

5) Instead of waiting for existing organizations to become more equitable and representative of the world, create the change you’re looking for. Build your own organizations and companies. Union describes her experiences on shows where the cast was entirely white: 

“By 2016, the whitewashing of the Friends’ world was so apparent in reruns and streaming that series cocreator Marta Kauffman had to acknowledge the situation to the Washington Post. “That is a criticism we have heard quite a bit,” Kauffman said. When we cast the show, we didn’t say to ourselves, “This is going to be an all-white cast.”

But it was. I didn’t call the director on the way he treated me, which I regret. I thought, “No wonder you don’t have black talent on this show.”  He assumed I didn’t know anything and he felt comfortable dismissing me with condescending directives. It’s actually not enough to just point out that there were so few black actors on the show. We need to look at why, and why it was assumed that I knew nothing. Bias, whether implicit or explicit, hits every industry. To be a black person is to understand what it is to be automatically infantilized and have it be assumed that you don’t have the talent or the skill set required to do your job.” (p.135)

In contrast to Union’s infantilizing experience on Friends, are her incredible experiences in Black films:

I will continue to do these movies – ones I call FUBU, For Us by Us – because I love them and I am grateful for them. I made lifelong friends on the sets of these films. The black Hollywood community is so small that we all came up together and created opportunities for each other. These movies set the stage for twenty-plus years of careers. It’s a testament to the community that we, over the years, have always looked out for each other and pitched each other for jobs. I am incredibly grateful for that love we have for one another and the mutual respect of talent that we bring to the table. None of us benefit from tearing each other down. There aren’t enough of us. We need each other to lean on.”(p.239)

So finally, in addition to and alongside to finding meaningful, dignified paid work through applying for job postings, consider how you can make your own work, be a business owner,  and  help create different more equitable systems.

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